May 31, 2015- St. Timothy’s UMC “Believe in Who?”
Rev. Mark M. Norman Vickers
I think I know how to fly fish pretty well! I’ve studied fly fishing techniques, casting techniques, fly patterns, stream currents and flow, fish feeding patterns and the like. I have done this for many, many, years. But when it all comes down to it, if the fish don’t want to bite, there will be no fish caught.
The fact of the matter is, we think we do a lot of things that are great and right and proper in our lives and we become dependent upon the dependence! When in fact, our only dependence can really come from our dependence upon God.
We gather this morning in our beautiful outdoor chapel to worship God. We come this morning because we are dependent upon the provisions, needs, and grace that God provides for us. We talked last week, on Pentecost Sunday about how controlling and dependent we were when something new and different happens. We were shaken by the presence of the Holy Spirit as it entered those on Pentecost and enters our own lives!
We hear in this wonderful text this morning the story of the inquisitive Nicodemus. The Pharisee wo approached Jesus and questioned him about his ability to do great things. Jesus, in his own way, offered to Nicodemus the fact (in story and illustration) for us that one can only understand the work of the Kingdom when one was “born anew”. One must be born from the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. As it does for most of us, the work of the Holy Spirit confuses us. But the church has done a great thing with this Sunday and with this text by proclaiming it to be Trinity Sunday. Because if we examine this text carefully it works to explain the complete work of the Trinity- Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
The text(s) this morning all focus on the work of what we call the “third person” of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In the wonderful Nicodemus story, Jesus explains to Nicodemus that God comes to us “from above” in the Greek ‘anothen’. I believe he uses that illustrative term to explain not only to Nicodemus, but also to us, the powerful, whimsical, gracious, and hopeful conotations that Nicodemus and all of us begin to see the powerful nature of God in our life. In that powerful presence coming “from above” not only indicates the heavenly and divine character of God but also the gracious quality of love and life God presents to us in so many different ways.
In the Nicodemus story, Jesus sets out for him the answer to his over simplified question, “How can I get to the place of understanding you have?” Nicodemus was coming out of the dark in search of light. He wanted, so badly, the key to a loving relationship with God. Jesus in turn said three things to him. First, “you have to be born from above to see the kingdom”. Second, you have to “get” the Spirit.
Third, the wind blows where it will. So in Jesus’ remarks back to Nicodemus, he focuses on the concept of Birth and Wind!! To fairly common biblical themes don’t you think?
Jesus says to Nicodemus, “you want to get where I am- then be born from above”. This of course left Nicodemus mystified. How can one be born ‘again’? How can that happen? Jesus answers in a rather sarcastic way, “You can squeeze back into your mother’s womb about as easy as you can squeeze yourself into the Kingdom of God”. In the Greek and in reading our text in English, it is imperative that we understand the word ‘anothen’ means “from above” or “from top to bottom”. In other words Nicodemus has to be born from the top down to the bottom. Most of our English translations say “we must be born again” instead of “from above”. This is a fundamental mistaken concept that I believe has impaired our way of thinking about the Holy Spirit. It gives us an impossible visual image in our world today, to be “born again” when if we take it from the Greek, we can certainly see that we can be born “from above and from top to bottom”!
Will Willimon suggests that Jesus was a bit frustrated with Nicodemus because he had miss-understood the necessity to be born from the Spirit and not from the flesh for a second time! How absurd! A lot of the time we are the same way. We struggle with non-existent problems of being born again, when in fact the concern is to be born from the Spirit, not the flesh! Jesus continued to emphasize the necessity to be attentive to what God is doing around us! God gave us a gift in this spirit of wind and birth. The Greek this morning implies that through this “being born from above” experience God bestows upon us is called ‘charis’ or grace, the ‘pneuma’ or wind of God is the gift of grace of the Holy Spirit. Wind is a gift. Birth is a gift. When Nicodemus said he didn’t understand, Jesus affirmed him and said, “Now you got it!” You can’t understand that work in a traditional form. It comes back to the pragmatic theme I started with this morning. We are such perfectionists, high achievers, accomplished aficionados, and pragmatic ‘do it yourselfers’. We come as a religious and believing people who think WE can do it all. We come searching for the 12 step program that will fix it all, a book we can read, a Cliff-Note we can use, we search for an illustrative guide to show us what to do.
In a preaching class I had years ago, the professor suggested we take a huge risk in preaching to people. We risk coming to Sunday to give (and you to receive) our “assignment for the week”. This week you work on your racism, sexism, and poverty and next week when you come you will get another list, and so on and so forth. We run the risk of over taking the Holy Spirit. We run the risk of trying to overtake the grace, the ‘pneuma’ that God bestows on all of us, preachers included. The sermon, the worship, the music, is all a gift that God gives to us each and every day.
Nicodemus was looking for an easy answer. He wanted to know what to do, right then and there, to obtain Kingdom status. The message for this morning is simply found in the obscure and the presence of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus reminds us, “We can’t do it”!! Only the one whom God has sent can do it!! Only the One who sent His Son in order that no one should perish can do what the Holy Spirit lays claim to. The Spirit from above is what does it for us and to us. The Spirit comes to us in grace! And it is through that “un-defined” action that we are changed. It is through the work of the Holy Spirit that we are changed into the people of God that God wants us to be.
So, as we continue to struggle to be the pragmatic people we will continue to be, working to make things more plausible, understandable, and fixable, Lord, allow us to receive the wonderful gift of your Holy Spirit in ways that surprise us, excite us, but most of all, sustain us!!
AMEN and AMEN.